Jacques Ellul’s nightmare vision of a technological dystopia

The_Technological_Society_by_Jacques_Ellul

It’s lovely to see one of my formative philosophical influences, and a man whose dystopian critique of technology is largely unknown to the populace at large these days — although it has deeply influenced such iconic cultural texts as Koyaanisqatsi — getting some mainstream attention (in The Boston Globe, two years ago):

Imagine for a moment that pretty much everything you think about technology is wrong. That the devices you believed are your friends are in fact your enemies. That they are involved in a vast conspiracy to colonize your mind and steal your soul. That their ultimate aim is to turn you into one of them: a machine.

It’s a staple of science fiction plots, and perhaps the fever dream of anyone who’s struggled too long with a crashing computer. But that nightmare vision is also a serious intellectual proposition, the legacy of a French social theorist who argued that the takeover by machines is actually happening, and that it’s much further along than we think. His name was Jacques Ellul, and a small but devoted group of followers consider him a genius.

To celebrate the centenary of his birth, a group of Ellul scholars will be gathering today at a conference to be held at Wheaton College near Chicago. The conference title: “Prophet in the Technological Wilderness.”

Ellul, who died in 1994, was the author of a series of books on the philosophy of technology, beginning with The Technological Society, published in France in 1954 and in English a decade later. His central argument is that we’re mistaken in thinking of technology as simply a bunch of different machines. In truth, Ellul contended, technology should be seen as a unified entity, an overwhelming force that has already escaped our control. That force is turning the world around us into something cold and mechanical, and — whether we realize it or not — transforming human beings along with it.

In an era of rampant technological enthusiasm, this is not a popular message, which is one reason Ellul isn’t well known. It doesn’t help that he refused to offer ready-made solutions for the problems he identified. His followers will tell you that neither of these things mean he wasn’t right; if nothing else, they say, Ellul provides one of the clearest existing analyses of what we’re up against. It’s not his fault it isn’t a pretty picture.

. . . Technology moves forward because we let it, he believed, and we let it because we worship it. “Technology becomes our fate only when we treat it as sacred,” says Darrell J. Fasching, a professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of South Florida. “And we tend to do that a lot.”

. . . “Ellul never opposed all participation in technology,” [says David Gill, founding president of the International Jacques Ellul Society and a professor of ethics at the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary]. “He didn’t live in the woods, he lived in a nice house with electric lights. He didn’t drive, but his wife did, and he rode in a car. But he knew how to create limits — he was able to say ‘no’ to technology. So using the Internet isn’t a contradiction. The point is that we have to say that there are limits.”

FULL STORY: “Jacques Ellul, technology doomsayer before his time

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD, GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES, and HORROR LITERATURE THROUGH HISTORY.

Posted on March 17, 2014, in Science & Technology, Society & Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You’re getting really creepy man. We were just discussing Archibald Lampman in class today.

    The City at the End of Things
    Lampman, Archibald (1861 – 1899)

    Beside the pounding cataracts
    Of midnight streams unknown to us
    ‘Tis builded in the leafless tracts
    And valleys huge of Tartarus.
    Lurid and lofty and vast it seems;
    It hath no rounded name that rings,
    But I have heard it called in dreams
    The City of the End of Things.
    Its roofs and iron towers have grown
    None knoweth how high within the night,
    But in its murky streets far down
    A flaming terrible and bright
    Shakes all the stalking shadows there,
    Across the walls, across the floors,
    And shifts upon the upper air
    From out a thousand furnace doors;
    And all the while an awful sound
    Keeps roaring on continually,
    And crashes in the ceaseless round
    Of a gigantic harmony.
    Through its grim depths re-echoing
    And all its weary height of walls,
    With measured roar and iron ring,
    The inhuman music lifts and falls.
    Where no thing rests and no man is,
    And only fire and night hold sway;
    The beat, the thunder and the hiss
    Cease not, and change not, night nor day.
    And moving at unheard commands,
    The abysses and vast fires between,
    Flit figures that with clanking hands
    Obey a hideous routine;
    They are not flesh, they are not bone,
    They see not with the human eye,
    And from their iron lips is blown
    A dreadful and monotonous cry;
    And whoso of our mortal race
    Should find that city unaware,
    Lean Death would smite him face to face,
    And blanch him with its venomed air:
    Or caught by the terrific spell,
    Each thread of memory snapt and cut,
    His soul would shrivel and its shell
    Go rattling like an empty nut.

    It was not always so, but once,
    In days that no man thinks upon,
    Fair voices echoed from its stones,
    The light above it leaped and shone:
    Once there were multitudes of men,
    That built that city in their pride,
    Until its might was made, and then
    They withered age by age and died.
    But now of that prodigious race,
    Three only in an iron tower,
    Set like carved idols face to face,
    Remain the masters of its power;
    And at the city gate a fourth,
    Gigantic and with dreadful eyes,
    Sits looking toward the lightless north,
    Beyond the reach of memories;
    Fast rooted to the lurid floor,
    A bulk that never moves a jot,
    In his pale body dwells no more,
    Or mind or soul,—an idiot!
    But sometime in the end those three
    Shall perish and their hands be still,
    And with the master’s touch shall flee
    Their incommunicable skill.
    A stillness absolute as death
    Along the slacking wheels shall lie,
    And, flagging at a single breath,
    The fires shall moulder out and die.
    The roar shall vanish at its height,
    And over that tremendous town
    The silence of eternal night
    Shall gather close and settle down.
    All its grim grandeur, tower and hall,
    Shall be abandoned utterly,
    And into rust and dust shall fall
    From century to century;
    Nor ever living thing shall grow,
    Nor trunk of tree, nor blade of grass;
    No drop shall fall, no wind shall blow,
    Nor sound of any foot shall pass:
    Alone of its accursèd state,
    One thing the hand of Time shall spare,
    For the grim Idiot at the gate
    Is deathless and eternal there.

  2. Hazard J Gibbon

    Great poem, reminds me of Lovecraft/Zelia Bishop’s “The Mound”, and how the inhabitants had once had a cultured civilization, that fell into decadence only when they’d perfected their mechanical skills to the detriment of their psychic and emotional zeitgeist.

  3. Agree with Hazard. Great poem, and the comparison to “The Mound” is spot-on.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *